8:10PM BST 05 Jun 2013
Just like Tony Blair over Iraq, the Prime Minister has lost touch with reality when it comes to Syria
The longer a prime minister remains in 10 Downing Street, the more likely he or she is to go mad. Something of the sort happened to Gordon Brown and also, from 2003 onwards if not before, to Tony Blair. No prime minister has left office in full possession of his or her mental faculties since Jim Callaghan in early 1979.
One of David Cameron’s admirable qualities has been his sanity. He is unexcitable. He is not paranoid, does not conspire against his colleagues, sit up to the small hours of the morning brooding, or hurl pieces of crockery around the room when in a violent rage. He is not subject to sudden, irrational mood-swings.
None of this can or should be taken for granted, and surely Samantha Cameron can take some of the credit. “My job is to get him out of here sane,” she tells friends.
But the Prime Minister has been in the job for three years (and Tory leader for nearly eight), and watching him answer questions on the floor of the House on Monday afternoon, for the first time I started to wonder.
With Parliament back after the Whitsun recess, Mr Cameron made a statement that dealt principally with the civil war in Syria, and gave the belated parliamentary response to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby. Many of his remarks were those of a man with only a tenuous grip on reality. What was missing was common sense. We have seen this many times before.
Sir Peter Tapsell, father of the Commons, said that Syria was now enduring what is “fundamentally a religious war between the Shia and the Sunni, which has raged within Islam for 1,300 years”.
Mr Cameron would not accept this point. “When I see the official Syrian opposition,” he replied, “I do not see purely a religious grouping; I see a group of people who have declared that they are in favour of democracy, human rights and a future for minorities, including Christians, in Syria. That is the fact of the matter.”
Then Jack Straw, a former foreign secretary, asked whether the Prime Minister agreed that Iran would have to be part of any peace deal. Mr Cameron failed to deal with this essential question.
At the time of the Iraq invasion 10 years ago, something very like this happened to Tony Blair. A moment came when he too entered a virtual world.
Like Mr Blair, Mr Cameron has come to advocate policy in a macabre vacuum, devoid of truth or understanding. He too displays a reluctance to accept the irksome realities of the human condition. Like Mr Blair, Mr Cameron had taken no interest in the world outside Britain before he entered No 10. They both learnt about foreign affairs as prime minister, and both are open to the charge that they treat the subject like a grand, theoretical abstraction.
From the start, Mr Cameron (just like Mr Blair in Iraq) has been happy to entertain the proposition that this Syrian conflict is in essence a struggle between good and evil – benevolent democrats and liberals fighting a virtuous struggle against the murderous tyrant Assad. In fact, the rebels were not nearly as good (and President Assad not as evil) as Mr Cameron has thought.
As a result of this, the Prime Minister has got it wrong from the start. He massively underestimated Assad’s support and staying power. He was absurdly contemptuous of the Russians (who have outmanoeuvred us all along). Above all, he has failed to understand the rebels.
Very much as Mr Blair and his American allies were duped by the impostor Ahmed Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress, so Mr Cameron has made the mistake of taking the Syrian National Coalition seriously. They are intelligent, educated, well-intentioned men in suits – hotel guerrillas – and as such irrelevant to what is now happening in Syria. The Prime Minister would do well to read the mea culpa published last week in Al-Monitor, by a pseudonymous writer from Aleppo who calls himself Edward Dark.
“So what went wrong?’ asks Mr Dark. “Or, to be more accurate, where did we go wrong? How did a once inspirational and noble popular uprising calling for freedom and basic human rights degenerate into an orgy of bloodthirsty sectarian violence, with depravity unfit for even animals?”
Mr Dark describes how the revolution has been captured by a collection of gangsters and fanatics. “This wasn’t what we revolted for,” he says in despair at the dreadful fate that has overcome the country he loves, “to replace one group of criminals with another.” Mr Dark now says he has given up on the revolution. He says that he has seen that the only way forward is “through reconciliation and a renunciation of violence”.
Yet Mr Cameron wants to escalate the fighting by arranging military support to the rebels. He told Parliament on Monday that he hopes this will “tip the balance” in their favour. Iran – in reality an essential part of any solution – will not be welcome at the negotiating table, and in Mr Cameron’s mind there is no future for Assad, which probably means that the war will drag on and on.
I dare say that the Prime Minister is sincere when he asserts that Syria is in the grip of a civil war, with democrats and human rights activists ranged up on one side against an evil dictator. I have not been to Syria, but it is clear to me that Sir Peter Tapsell is much closer to the truth.
Certainly, the liberal elite in which the Prime Minister places such hopes was involved at the beginning of the uprising. But armed elements funded and supplied by interested parties in Saudi Arabia and Qatar were also present from the start. Their fundamental aim was nothing to do with human rights and the protection of minorities. It was to destabilise and destroy President Assad, Iran’s closest ally in the region, and therefore assert Saudi dominance.
To what extent have Britain and America been complicit? It is hard to judge. What can be said with certainty is that over the past decade the Middle East, and to some extent the Islamic world, has broken down into two armed camps. On the one side are Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, backed by the United States and (quietly) Israel. To everyone’s enormous embarrassment, al-Qaeda is very firmly in this camp.
On the other side are Iran, Hizbollah and post-bellum Iraq, strongly backed by Russia and China. Viewed from this wider perspective, Mr Cameron’s claim to be on the side of democracy and human rights, and against dictatorship, is not merely fraudulent – it is patently ridiculous.
We are not on the side of democracy. As Sir Peter Tapsell hinted in the Commons, Britain has wholeheartedly backed the Sunni camp – Saudi, the Gulf States, and al-Qaeda – in its increasingly bloodthirsty and horrifying conflict against Shia Islam. There may be some very good reasons for this, but I do wish that the Prime Minister would re-engage with the real world, come out publicly, and explain what they are.